Japan marks three years since quake-tsunami disasters, nuclear crisis


MINAMISANRIKU THREE YEARS AFTER QUAKE-TSUNAMI — Photo shows the local municipal government’s tsunami-hit disaster response building in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, on Feb. 28. Kyodo News photo

MINAMISANRIKU THREE YEARS AFTER QUAKE-TSUNAMI — Photo shows the local municipal government’s tsunami-hit disaster response building in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, on Feb. 28.  Kyodo News photo
MINAMISANRIKU THREE YEARS AFTER QUAKE-TSUNAMI — Photo shows the local municipal government’s tsunami-hit disaster response building in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, on Feb. 28.
Kyodo News photo

TOKYO (Kyodo) — Japan marked the third anniversary of the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami on March 11 with prayers for more than 18,000 people who died or remain missing in the catastrophe, which also triggered the world’s worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Three years since the magnitude 9.0 quake, and ensuing tsunami and nuclear disaster in northeastern Japan, disaster-struck communities continue to struggle to come to terms with the loss of so many lives and properties, and with many evacuees still living in temporary housing.

Memorial services were held across the country, including in the three hardest-hit northeastern prefectures — Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima — on March 11, with a moment of silence observed at 2:46 p.m. when the massive quake occurred, forcing the evacuation of about 470,000 people in the ensuing chaotic days.

Facing criticism from some disaster-affected people that reconstruction work is slow, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed at a government-sponsored memorial ceremony at the National Theater in Tokyo to speed up rebuilding efforts.

“Taking to heart the valuable lessons we learned from the challenges of the massive earthquake, we hereby pledge to create a nation that has a strong degree of resilience to disasters,” Abe said at the ceremony attended by about 1,200.

Emperor Akihito, with Empress Michiko by his side, said at the same ceremony, “In order to ensure that they can live in good health, and that they can live without losing hope, it is important that everyone’s hearts be with the afflicted for many years to come.”

Representing people who lost family members in Miyagi Prefecture, Katsuo Izumi, 69, said, “Our mission as survivors is to live to the fullest for the people who died.”

Mikiko Asanuma, the 50-year-old representative of bereaved kin in Iwate Prefecture, vowed to tell future generations what happened in 2011.

Survivors in hard-hit areas visited graves and other locations throughout the day to pray for their families and friends.

The disaster killed 15,884 people — many from drowning as tsunami over 20 meters high (65.6 feet) swallowed vast swaths of coastal towns and villages. Another 2,633 people remained missing as of March 10, according to the National Police Agency.

Police and the Japan Coast Guard conducted search operations March 11 for remains of the missing along the shores of the Pacific coast in the hard-hit areas where relatives cling to hope of recovering the bodies of loved ones.

Japan also continues to grapple with radioactive contamination from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, devastated by a series of hydrogen explosions and nuclear reactor core meltdowns after the quake and tsunami knocked out power to critical safety systems.

The nuclear crisis has triggered a nationwide debate on the safety of nuclear power, which used to provide a third of the electricity consumed in Japan.

In the Fukushima Prefecture town of Namie, located in what remains a no-entry zone due to radiation released by the damaged plant, 33 residents remain missing.

“I want to help as much as possible in finding clues,” said Yoko Yoshida, 63, who joined the search for the missing.

In Tokyo, about 100 people, including those affected by the Fukushima crisis, staged a protest in front of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry by releasing 300 red balloons with the words “No to nuclear power” in Japanese.

Among them was Sachiko Kameya, a 68-year-old resident of the Fukushima town of Futaba who now lives as an evacuee in Tokyo.

“I want the state to make efforts so that our lives will soon be back to normal,” said Kameya.

At a memorial service in the city of Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai said, “We will step up efforts in the areas of housing, employment and education to help rebuild the people’s lives without further delay.”

In a vivid reminder of how the Great East Japan Earthquake, one of the most powerful quakes on record in Japan, and the ensuing tsunami have displaced people, about 267,000 are still living in temporary housing and other makeshift residences nationwide, partly due to the slow progress in building public housing for disaster victims.

More than 3,000 people have also died since the disasters from stress-related factors including suicide, with many of those fatalities among people living in evacuation centers.

The government has allocated a budget of 25 trillion yen ($244 billion) for reconstruction for the five-year period from fiscal 2011, up from 19 trillion yen ($185 billion), but the road to reconstruction appears to be long.

Public anxiety is high over recent leaks of highly toxic water from radioactive water storage tanks at the Fukushima plant. Despite the Japanese government’s declaration in late 2011 that the nuclear crisis is under control, Tokyo Electric Power Co. is struggling to manage the massive volume of radioactive water.

All 48 of the commercial reactors in Japan are now offline, but the government wants to resume operation of reactors that satisfy new safety regulations despite strong opposition.
Drawing lessons from the catastrophe, Iwate’s tsunami-hit city of Miyako held an evacuation drill under the scenario of a tsunami following a magnitude 9.0 quake off neighboring Aomori Prefecture.

“I hope we will continue to conduct these drills so that we will not forget the disaster,” said 82-year-old Tamiko Hatakeyama, who joined the drill.

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